Kids Are Tiny, Judgmental Snobs When It Comes to Morality

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Photo: A.J. Rich/Getty Images

There’s a line in one of the Harry Potter books where Dumbledore, the wise old headmaster of Hogwarts, reassures Harry that despite some Voldemort-ish tendencies, there’s one very important thing that sets him apart from the Dark Lord: “It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” It’s a great line, and it works: Harry feels better about himself, and the wizarding world goes on turning.

A younger wizard, though, would not be so easily placated. According to a new study in the journal Psychological Science, younger children aren’t interested in your choices so much as your thought process: Kids demand moral purity, and anything less makes you just a little bit evil.

For the study, researchers recruited kids between the ages of 3 and 8 and showed them two related scenarios. The first featured a child who acted morally without temptation: a girl who’s just promised to clean up her toys hears her friends playing outside, but cleans up anyway because she’s not interested in joining, and a boy confesses to his mother that he broke a lamp with his ball, even though he knows she’ll take the ball away, but he’s not interested in playing with it anymore.

In the second scenario, the characters struggled a little more before arriving at the same outcome: The girl did want to go play but stayed inside anyway, because she knew it was right; the boy wanted to keep his ball, but chose honesty over self-protection.

When the researchers asked the kids to award a prize to one of the hypothetical protagonists “for doing something good,” nearly 80 percent of them giving it to the unconflicted character. But when the researchers ran the same task with adults, the opposite was true — the unconflicted character won out less than a third of the time. In a separate experiment, adults were also more likely than kids to say that a conflicted character would make moral choices in the future.

“Our findings suggest that children may begin with the view that inner moral conflict is inherently negative,” the study authors wrote, “but, with development, come to value the exercise of willpower and self-control.” They didn’t have a firm idea as to why that might be the case, but offered a theory for the age divide: It could just be that kids haven’t had to deal with these issues the way adults have. They haven’t experienced conflicting desires to the same degree, or had as many chances to exercise willpower. Kids, in other words, don’t have enough context to be impressed by your struggle. There’s another famous Dumbledore that Harry Potter fans will recognize: “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” Sounds like a line that was spoken — and written — by an adult. To a child, they ought to be one and the same.